One of Hong Kong’s few chefs to be awarded three Michelin stars, Alvin Leung is championing local suppliers with his latest venture, farm-to-table concept Café Bau.
Self-taught chef Alvin Leung rose to prominence for his imaginative, molecular take on Chinese food – he calls it “X-Treme Chinese” – at his Hong Kong restaurant Bo Innovation, which earned two, then three Michelin stars in 2009 and 2014 respectively. The ever-evolving menu has included dishes like Hong Kong egg waffles filled with spring onions and Iberico ham presented street food style in a paper bag; and traditional taro puffs topped with gold and caviar for an elevated take on this humble dim sum delicacy.
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Keen to embrace sustainability after appearing on a recent MasterChef Canada series as a judge – the birth of his grandson also fostered greater environmental awareness – he opened farm-to-table concept Café Bau this spring, which sources many of its ingredients from local suppliers, including Hong Kong Heritage Pork from Yuen Long and Tai Wai Beer from the New Territories.
Dishes such as the hand-cut penne cacio e pepe with preserved clams and yellow chicken wings, with a sauce enlivened by fresh, briny preserved clams from the local market, have already met with great gusto by diners, as has the Ping Yuen yellow chicken, brined overnight in coconut milk, served with morel and black termite mushrooms and homegrown rice.
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“The chickens are raised in the New Territories free of antibiotics and boast flavoursome meat and a rich layer of fat underneath the skin. Paired with locally grown, sundried rice from Yi O Farm on Lantau Island, this main makes for a hearty, well-rounded sharing dish,” the chef explains, adding, “great taste doesn’t require imported ingredients.”
Leung, who currently has restaurants in Singapore (15 Stamford by Alvin Leung), Canada (R&D), and Dubai (Demon Duck by Alvin Leung), is currently planning new restaurants in China, North America and “maybe the Middle East.”
The restaurant is tagged as “farm-to-table”. Tell us about some of the suppliers you work with.
Cafe Bau is dedicated to using the highest amount of locally sourced ingredients – almost 100% – to reduce its carbon footprint on the planet and provide an exceptional farm-to-table dining experience. We work with several local farms and purveyors including Lam Tsuen (honey), Pat Chun (sweet vinaigrette) and Kowloon Dairy (milk). We chose them as we believe they all represent Hong Kong’s iconic flavours the best.
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You’ve appeared on MasterChef Canada among other shows. Being self-taught yourself, do you believe anyone can become a great chef? And what have you learned about home chefs?
I believe anyone can become anything as long as the conditions are right, and when passion, talent, luck and a little bit of hard work come together at the right time in the right place. What I’ve learnt about home cooks is that along with passion, talent and hard work are equally important – and the most common fault is under-seasoning.
You were born in London and were raised in Toronto. What dishes inspired you as a kid growing up, and did you try to recreate them?
I had a horrible culinary upbringing by my mother and have deep scars instead of fun memories. I still have a phobia for certain things like instant noodles and ham sandwiches, which I overdosed on during my childhood. I think my mother’s lack of cooking skills inspired me to learn to cook.
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You’re a qualified engineer. To what extent has that background influenced your cooking?
My professional education as an engineer manifests itself in everything I create in the kitchen. I ensure that every dish is crafted with engineering precision and that the perfect ingredients and techniques are used. There are times that one single dish could take months until it’s perfect and ready to be added to the menu and served to our guests.
You once referred to yourself as “The Demon Chef” – does that still sum you up or have you moved on from that label?
It’s like tattoos: nicknames are permanent and should remain relevant for a lifetime. Some people ask me, “has the demon tamed in his old age?”. The answer is no, because the demon was never meant to be a beast. It stands for a playful spirit with no harm to anyone. And as the years pass, I feel I’ve become more playful.
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Bo Innovation gained two, then three, Michelin stars. Was that a lot of pressure to live up to?
As my food friend and fellow chef, Umberto Bombana, said: “Once you’re at the top, the only path is down.” Receiving the third star was a great achievement, and I maintained it for almost 10 years. The pressure of being on top is often created by the lack of confidence in your work. Since then, I’ve fallen back to two again. So, if someone asks if there’s a pressure trying to go back to three, I say: If one sees Michelin stars as a form of reward rather than recognition, then the pressure isn’t relevant. I’ve been very lucky that I achieved three Michelin stars. I’m very satisfied and could die tomorrow happy.
How will Cafe Bau evolve?
In the long run, we’ll offer our diners some upscale lunch options and continue to showcase the finest local produce from the area by updating our menu with new culinary creations every other week.
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How can the F&B industry adopt a more sustainable approach?
The F&B industry should incorporate more recycling and upcycling initiatives, be more generous and donate food, and pass out gifts to their guests to reduce waste wherever possible. When running a restaurant, we also need to look at it from a social point of view, like staff wellbeing, which benefits the restaurant too. Things like fair working hours and creating an environment with less stress produces a more sustainable environment from a social angle.
You have restaurants in Singapore, Canada and Dubai. Any more on the horizon?
I like to take every opportunity that is offered to me to expand overseas, which is why I’m planning new openings in China, North America and maybe the Middle East.
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